Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Cubes and Spheres

Cubes and Spheres

The blue robots had always carried the spheres.  That was how it was, and it had been that way since anyone could remember.  The blue robots carried spheres, and the red robots carried cubes.  Both spheres and cubes were equally essential to the functioning of the machine, and with each assigned their role, everything ran smoothly.  

Until one day, a blue robot picked up a cube.  For the purposes of this story, we’ll call this robot Dave.  

Dave stared at the cube in its hands, feeling the weight of it, and the cube felt right.  It felt natural.  Dave hoisted the cube and continued its trek towards the machine.

A red robot stopped him.  “Why are you carrying that cube?” It asked.

“Because it feels right to do so,” said Dave.

“But blue robots carry spheres,” said the red robot, “and red robots carry cubes.”

Dave thought about this.  The red robot was not wrong.  Deep in Dave’s programming, it knew the history of the machine, and how there had always been only one way to feed it.  Red robots carried cubes, and blue robots carried spheres.

Yet as Dave looked at the red robot, Dave noticed something.  Dave had always assumed that the two kinds of robots had each been designed differently – one best suited to carry cubes, and one to carry spheres.  But Dave’s arms looked identical to the arms of the red robot.  There was no reason why a blue robot couldn’t carry a cube, and there was also no reason why a red robot couldn’t carry a sphere.  

And, to Dave, it felt right to carry a cube.  

So Dave pushed past the red robot and continued along its way to the machine.  

Another red robot stopped him. 

“Why are you carrying that cube?” it asked.

“Because it feels right to do so,” said Dave.

“But you should be carrying a sphere,” said the red robot.

“Why?” asked Dave.

“Because blue robots carry spheres,” said the red robot.

“Have you ever tried carrying a sphere?” asked Dave.

The red robot was silent for a few moments, and then said, “No, because I carry cubes.”

“Why do you carry cubes?” asked Dave.

“Because it is my function,” said the red robot.  

“And what is the reason that a blue robot cannot carry a cube?  I seem to be able to carry one without difficulty,” said Dave.  

“But blue robots carry spheres,” the red robot repeated.

Dave decided this debate was going nowhere, and went on its way toward the machine.  The red robot did not stop Dave.

When it reached the machine, Dave realized it didn’t know where to put the cube.  It was Dave’s first time carrying a cube, and it only knew where to put spheres.  

A red robot approached.  For the purposes of this story, we’ll name this red robot Jack.

“Why are you carrying that cube?” asked Jack.

“Because it feels right to do so,” Dave answered.  “But I do not know where to put this cube.”

Jack was silent for a few moments, and then said, “The cubes go to the back of the machine, where the Counter sits.”

“The Counter?” asked Dave.

“The one who calculates the number of spheres and cubes needed for the machine to operate.  Follow me.”  Jack walked toward the back of the machine.  Dave followed.  

“You’re the first blue one I’ve seen carrying a cube,” said Jack.  “Why are you doing that?”

“Because it feels right,” Dave said.  

“Really,” said Jack.  “That is interesting.”  

“You do not object?” asked Dave.

“My programming tells me that blue robots carry spheres, but I can find no logical reason why you shouldn’t be able to carry cubes,” said Jack.

“Many other red robots would disagree,” said Dave.

Standing at the back of the machine, in front of a stack of cubes, was a human.  Dave recognized the human as being male, and elderly, with a long white beard.  The human held an electronic tablet, and he was tapping on it with his long human fingers.

“What’s this?” asked the human, looking up.  Dave proffered the cube.

“Just put it on the stack,” said the human, and gestured behind him.  Dave walked over and set the cube on the stack.  It heard the human muttering as he manipulated his electronic tablet computer.  “Current budget is…twenty thousand cubes…thirty thousand spheres…” 

These words meant nothing to Dave.  It turned and began walking back to pick up another cube.

“Wait,” said the human.  Dave turned.  

“You’re a blue robot.  Why did you give me a cube?” asked the human.

“Because it felt right to do so,” said Dave.

The human was silent for a few moments, and then said, “Ok, that’s fine, just… tell me if any more of your blue friends start carrying cubes.  It’s fine, really, but I’ll need to recalculate some things.”

“Why do blue robots only carry spheres?” asked Dave.

“Honestly?  Because way back in the day when the machine was designed, that was just how it was decided.”

“But it is not immutable,” said Dave.

“No,” said the Counter.  “It’s just the way it’s always been done.”

“So I can carry cubes,” said Dave.  

“I guarantee you that the machine doesn’t care,” said the Counter.

Over the next few days, Dave continued to carry cubes.  It was stopped frequently by red robots, demanding that Dave drop its cube and pick up a sphere instead, but Dave merely repeated what the Counter had told him: “I guarantee you that the machine doesn’t care.”  This put a stop to most of the red robots’ protests.

But not all.

Once when Dave approached the machine, contentedly clutching its cube, it was stopped by a large group of red robots.  One at the front stepped forward.

“Put down that cube, blue robot.  You are to carry spheres.”

Dave paused, and then tried to reason with the red robots.

“The Counter said, ‘I guarantee you that the machine doesn’t care.’”

“But it is not the way.  Blue robots carry spheres,” repeated the red robot.

“Why?” asked Dave.

 “Blue robots carry spheres,” the red robot leader repeated.  

“Blue robots carry spheres,” the red robots behind the leader repeated in unison.

At that moment, a second blue robot appeared next to the first one.   For the purposes of this story, we’ll call the second blue robot Sally.

Sally was also carrying a cube.  Dave looked at Sally and nodded in greeting.

“Stop,” said the red robot leader.  “You are both in violation.  Give us the cubes and go get spheres, as you are meant to.”

“No,” said Dave.

“No,” repeated Sally.  

With that, Dave and Sally continued walking forward, toward the machine.  The red robots let them pass, because it was unlawful for one robot to harm another.

Dave and Sally approached the Counter and deposited their cubes in the stack.  

“Two of you now?  Ok,” said the Counter.  He typed furiously on his tablet computer.  “Any other blue robots carrying cubes?” he asked.

“Unknown,” said Dave.

“I know of at least three others,” said Sally.  “And I know of one blue robot that sometimes carries cubes and sometimes carries spheres.”

The Counter looked up from his tablet and squinted at Sally.

“A blue robot that carries both?” 

“Yes,” said Sally.  “Is that acceptable?”

“It’s fine,” said the Counter.  “Complicates things a little – have to recalculate some budgetary stuff, but it’s like I told your buddy here – the machine doesn’t care.”

But when the two blue robots walked back to pick up their cubes, they found that the cube storage area was now guarded by a garrison of twenty or more robots, both blue and red.

“Blue robots carry spheres,” the garrison of robots said in unison.  

“The machine does not care,” said Dave.  “The Counter said so.”

“Blue robots carry spheres,” the garrison repeated.

“Why?” asked Sally.

“Blue robots carry spheres,” the garrison repeated.

And so, with no recourse, the two blue robots retreated to where the spheres were kept. 

There they were confronted with a similar garrison of blue and red robots.  But this garrison let the two blue robots in.  

Dave picked up a sphere.  Somewhere in Dave’s programming, this felt wrong, and error messages flashed in Dave’s memory core.  

Dave dropped the sphere and stood silent for a moment.  It watched as Sally also picked up a sphere, held it for a second, and then dropped it.  

“I cannot carry spheres anymore,” said Sally.  “All I want to do is carry cubes.”

“I also want to carry only cubes,” said Dave.   

“And I want to carry both,” said another blue robot from behind Dave.  Dave turned to face this new ally.  

“And the machine doesn’t care,” said Dave.  

“Frankly, I no longer wish to carry spheres or cubes,” said another robot from nearby.  “Surely there are other roles we blue robots can fill.”

“And I want to carry spheres.”  Jack, the red robot, emerged from the shadows.  

“How did you get in here?” Dave asked.

“I’ve been hiding here since before the garrison formed.  Now I’m a little bit trapped,“ Jack said.

“I have an idea,” Sally said.  Sally walked over to the blue robots’ maintenance shed and brought out a can of paint restorer.  

“We can paint you blue.  Then you can carry spheres.”

“This is acceptable,” Jack said.  Sally applied the paint restorer, and soon, Jack shone a brilliant blue.  

“Perfect,” Sally said.  

The formerly red robot looked at its newly blue arms and said, “This looks right.”

“Good.  Let us go reason with the garrison.  Surely they will understand,” said Dave.

The three blue robots walked out of the sphere storage area, past the garrison.  None of the robots in the garrison noticed that one of the three was a formerly red robot now painted blue.  

As they approached the garrison around the cube storage area, the three robots saw that the Counter had emerged from his spot behind the machine and was already talking to the garrison. 

“But the machine doesn’t care,” the Counter was saying.  

“Blue robots carry spheres.  Red robots carry cubes,” the garrison repeated in unison.

“You are all smarter than that,” said Jack, approaching the Counter and addressing the garrison.  “I know, because I am smarter than that.”  

“Yes, you are,” the Counter said, nodding at Jack.  “We programmed you with adaptable minds.  And the important thing is the machine.”

Dave, Jack, and Sally stood in a line next to the Counter.    

“We need to feed the machine,” Dave said.  “It does not matter how we feed it.”

“Blue robots carry spheres.  Red robots carry cubes,” the garrison repeated.

“Look, honestly, it doesn’t matter,” said the Counter.  “Carry whatever you want.  Just get the spheres and cubes to the machine.  Now.  Time is a factor.  Ok?”

“The Counter speaks truth,” Dave said.  “The machine does not care.”

In the distance, Dave heard a sharp, metallic noise, the sound of something grinding, something stopping.

“See?  The machine stopped,” said the Counter.  “Is that what you want?”

“Blue robots carry spheres.  Red robots carry cubes,” the garrison repeated.

“Christ almighty.  I thought we’d have an easier time with robots.  You’re supposed to be logical.  Is it logical to let the machine die?”

“Blue robots carry spheres.  Red robots carry cubes,” the garrison repeated.

The lights began to flicker overhead.  

“We’ve got like 15 minutes to figure this out before I run out of air, die, and leave all of you to rust,” said the Counter.  

At that moment, Dave noticed something happening with the garrison.  Some of the robots began to move away from the entrance to the cube storage area.  There was a commotion as the garrison broke apart.  About half of the robots kept shouting about blue robots carrying spheres and red robots carrying cubes.  The other half moved toward the Counter and took their places near Dave, Sally, and Jack.  

The two sides were now basically evenly matched.  

“Stand down,” said the Counter.  “We need to figure this out rationally, and quickly.  Or, as I said, I’m going to die, and you all are eventually going to run out of power and also die.”

But the face-off continued, with the garrison holding firm and repeating its litany about the proper roles of blue and red robots.

“I do not understand it,” said Dave.  “Why will they not budge?  Why do they not see?”

“I don’t know,” said Jack.  

“It doesn’t make sense.  Why jeopardize the machine?” Sally asked.

“Our purpose is to feed spheres and cubes into the machine.  Let’s do that and stop worrying about who brings what,” Dave said to the garrison.

“Blue robots carry spheres.  Red robots carry cubes,” repeated the garrison.

“Ok, watch this,” Jack said, walking over to the sphere storage area.  As before, that garrison let Jack through.  Jack grabbed a sphere and carried it back to the standoff.  

“See this?  I’m carrying a sphere.”  

“Yes, you are a blue robot,” said a member of the garrison.

“But am I?”  Jack handed the sphere to Dave, who promptly dropped it.  Jack scraped some of the paint off its arm and brandished the now red appendage toward the garrison.  There was a murmur. 

“You have disfigured yourself,” said one of the red robots in the garrison.

“No, I have been repainted,” said Jack.  “According to your rules, which should I carry?”

“You are a red robot,” said someone in the garrison.  “You should carry cubes.”

“Let me just—look, I can’t emphasize this enough,” said the Counter.  “I guarantee, I promise, I swear by all the Gods that might have ever existed.  The machine doesn’t care who carries what.  I don’t care who carries what.  Nobody cares who carries what.  We just need to get these spheres and cubes to the machine.  Now.”

Dave noticed the Counter’s breathing was getting shallow.  Dave scanned the Counter’s vitals and realized he was, in fact, running out of air.  

“This ends now,” Dave said, and nodded at the other robots on his side.  Together, they advanced toward the remaining garrison.  The robots of the garrison advanced, repeating their mantra.  “Blue robots carry spheres.  Red robots carry cubes.”

The two sides met in the middle and stared each other down.   Neither side could advance further, and because of their programming, they could not actually fight each other.

“Please…” the Counter gasped.  “Please just get some spheres and cubes to the machine…” 

The Counter collapsed to the floor, gulping for air.

“Blue robots carry spheres.  Red robots carry cubes.”  

Dave tried with all of its might to push past the garrison robots, but Dave’s programming just wouldn’t allow that.  

And now the Counter lay silent on the ground, unmoving.  

The two lines of robots stared at each other as the lights flickered off.

“Blue robots carry spheres.  Red robots carry cubes.”  

The words echoed off the walls and ceiling and meant nothing.